Bridget Cleary: The Tragedy of Ireland’s Faery Wife

For this week’s Femme Fatale Friday, I will be looking at the sad story of Bridget Cleary.   Her story takes place in Ireland just before the turn of the twentieth century.    This was a time and place when the belief in faeries was still widespread.   Bridget Cleary had the misfortune of having her husband suspect that she had been taken into the land of Faery and that a changeling was left in her place.    His belief that his wife was not herself anymore, but a faery doppelgänger would lead to a very tragic fate for poor Bridget!

The life of Bridget Cleary was not what one would think normal for a 28-year-old woman in 1895 Ireland.   She lived in a rural village near Clonmel in County Tipperary.    Michael Cleary was a cooper, but the two did better financially than many of their contemporaries due to Bridget working small jobs, like selling eggs.   This is something that made her an outsider and different from other women in her village.   She was married but childless.   She was a woman that chose to make her own money, and wear nice clothing.   She also was known to have had a deep fascination with faeries!    Bridget even was known to frequent local fairy hills, which were believed to be portals to the Otherworld.

The day that she came down with the illness that would prove to be her last, she had stopped to visit her favorite fairy hill on the way home from an egg delivery.   Her illness began as something anyone could experience, she was freezing and could not seem to get warm.    It was likely that Bridget had either pneumonia or tuberculosis, but Michael Cleary had a different belief as to what was happening with his wife.   Spurred on by the beliefs of Jack Dunne, Michael became more and more convinced that Bridget was not the woman he married.    Michael Cleary became convinced that Bridget was a faery changeling who was sent to the human world, while his actual wife was taken away with the fairies!

Her illness lasted many days, and she was seen by both her regular physician and a priest, in case she did not recover.   Dunne convinced Michael to go to the local fairy doctor as well, and he received herbs to brew a mixture to exorcise Bridget.       The ritual performed with Michael forcing this mixture down Bridget’s throat included her being held down by her cousins, and even the men throwing urine at her.   Even after a rather disgusting mixture was administered to prove that she was not a faery in disguise, Michael’s paranoia did not abate!   All of these horrors did not help Bridget’s husband to realize she was not a changeling.   

Yet the story grows darker, and sadder from here.   When Bridget finally was healed enough from her illness to be able to leave the house Michael Cleary was so convinced that the woman before him was not his wife, he continued to test her.    It had been eleven days of illness, and she was finally dressed to leave the house.   But Michael kept asking her if she was Bridget Boland, wife of Michael Cleary.    She continued with the same reassurances she had offered during her illness, but he refused to believe she was his wife.    He force-fed her jam and bread when she paused in consuming the third of three pieces he insisted that she eat.   Finally to the horror of her family that was in their home he started tearing off her clothing until she was only in her chemise.   Michael lit Bridget’s chemise on fire, and then poured paraffin lamp oil all over her so that the flames would grow!    As Bridget burned alive Michael told said to her family “She’s not my wife. She’s an old deceiver sent in place of my wife.”

Bridget’s cousins were forced to help bury her body, and Michael even considered suicide to evade the law after the crime was committed, but he still believed his “real wife” may come back!   After her death, he was known to sit near the faery hill waiting for the ‘real Bridget’ to appear, since the changeling was now dead.   This would lead to a trial where Bridget’s family would testify to the atrocities incurred during and after her illness.   Michael Cleary and Jack Dunne would both be sentenced to manslaughter for their acts against Bridget.    Dunne served three years, and Cleary was released in 1910.    They had not been charged with murder, as the judge stated that this crime was committed due to actual belief!

Some believe that this crime against Bridget was due to her possibly having an affair, and Michael finding a creative way to kill his wife.    Others think that she was a victim of a society that could not accept a woman who deviated from the norm and that this made her seem closer to the faeries to begin with!    One thing is certain, and that is that Bridget was an intelligent and capable woman who lived life a little bit differently than others.   She did not deserve to die due to the paranoia and hysteria of the men around her!    This is why she is often remembered as “the last witch burned in Ireland.”    There is even a nursery rhyme about her in Ireland “Are you a witch or are you a fairy, / Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?”

I hope that you have enjoyed learning about this very different femme fatale this week.   To me she is more than a victim, she is a woman who was done wrong by society, and I wanted to share her story.   Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Note on Story: Bridget Cleary’s tale has been told with slight variation in different sources.   This may be attributed to how the tale was recounted at trial by different individuals.   I chose to recount one of the common versions of the tale.   I encourage all interested in the tale to read as many accounts as possible to gain a good grasp on what actually happened to Bridget.    Additionally, Bridget’s age was sometimes listed as 28 and other times as 26, and I feel that this may be due to the lack of regulation of birth records during this era.               

Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is Holland Roden as Bridget in Lore.   I found the image on

Further Reading/Watching